There is nothing funny about Humours: The origins of the humoral theory in Hippocratic Medicine
University of Exeter
The theory of the humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) dominated western medicine, even up until the nineteenth century. The origins of this theory are generally recognised as being from the work of the Greek Hippocratic doctors of the fifth century BCE, with a further development by the physician Galen in the second century CE. However, a close reading of the various Hippocratic texts shows that the original idea of the humours, in the fifth century BCE, is much more complex and diverse than the later theory of humours developed by Galen, which was used as the basis for the humoral theory for nearly two millennia. This paper will present a number of the ideas developed by the Hippocratic doctors to explain the workings of the human body, without any sophisticated knowledge of human anatomy. This will show that there were a range of possible theories, relating to humours and other similar substances, available in the Hippocratic texts. It was the later medical writers, such as Galen, who developed selected parts of the Hippocratic texts, to create a more robust theory describing four fundamental fluids to explain health and disease, which has been called the theory of the humours.
Arts and Humanities Research Council.